DAVID PRATT ON THE WORLD:Truth is already the first casualty in war of words over Ukraine

“False flag operations,” fabricated attacks,” and “crisis actors.” The disinformation claims and counter claims go on, dangerously fuelling tensions between Russia and the West. Foreign Editor David Pratt examines the evidence

If you haven’t already watched it then you should. I’m talking about a video clip that surfaced last Thursday on social media platforms, showing a tense exchange between US State Department spokesperson Ned Price and the veteran Associated Press diplomatic correspondent Matt Lee, during a briefing in Washington.

During the session Price made the case “that Moscow might create a false flag operation” to justify an invasion of Ukraine, citing the existence of a Russian intelligence propaganda video that allegedly depicts “explosions and fake corpses,” “crisis actors pretending to be mourners” and “images of destroyed locations or military equipment” on the ground in Ukraine. Reporter Matt Lee was not convinced.

“I would like to see some proof that you can show that shows what the Russians are doing. I’ve been doing this a long time…I remember Iraq and that Kabul’s not going to fall,” Lee retorted, referencing numerous US intelligence failures that led to war or disastrous events these past decades.

Lee’s point was well made, based as it was on the understanding that time and again politicians and governments have ‘sold’ the idea of going to war or ‘strategies’ to an unsuspecting public using spurious or even deliberately doctored intelligence accounts.

Just to be clear here, not for a moment am I suggesting that America is itching for a fight over Ukraine or indeed Russia the same. But the dangers of both sides promulgating such uncorroborated details or disinformation are obvious enough in a tense international crisis like Ukraine in which truth has fast become the first casualty.

The country that stands to suffer most, Ukraine, certainly understands the chances of making a bad situation even worse through the peddling of such unsubstantiated accounts.

Speaking only a week ago, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky criticised what he said was too much “panic.”

“I don’t consider the situation now more tense than before. There is a feeling abroad that there is war here. That’s not the case.”

But even in the seven intervening days since Zelensky spoke, that sense of trepidation and foreboding has only grown as the war of words between Moscow and the West intensifies. Disinformation, claim and counter claim, outright propaganda, are all at play here, and both sides to varying degrees are culpable.

For its part, the US has already previously made claims of a Russian false flag operation. In mid-January for example the White House said it had information indicating that Russia had “pre-positioned” a group of operatives to conduct a “false flag” operation in eastern Ukraine. “The operatives are trained in urban warfare and in using explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russia’s own proxy-forces,” the US report alleged.

The most recent claims over the past few days centred on what Washington described as a “fabricated attack.”

“We have information that one of the options the Russian government is planning is to stage a fabricated attack by Ukrainian military or intelligence forces against Russian sovereign territory, or against Russian-speaking people, to justify military action against Ukraine,” a senior Biden administration official said.

“We believe that Russia has already recruited those who will be involved in the fabricated attack and that Russian intelligence is intimately involved in this effort.”

At the heart of such subterfuge US officials insist is a “propaganda video” that would help bolster Moscow’s claim of a Ukrainian assault. Russia for its part was quick to dismiss such claims as “nonsense.”

The plan for the fake attack on Russian territory or Russian-speaking people was revealed in US declassified intelligence shared with Ukrainian officials and European allies in recent days. Whether true or not, there’s no doubt that the Kremlin – just like the US – has form when it comes to creating propaganda over Ukraine.

Writing a few days ago, Alexey Kovalev the investigative editor at the Russian and English-language online newspaper, Meduza, reminded of a now infamous piece of disinformation put out by Moscow during its initial backing of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine back in 2014.

Known as the “crucified boy of Slavyansk,” Kovalev in an article published by Foreign Policy (FP) magazine described the story as “a canard designed by Russian state-controlled media to whip Russians into a nationalist frenzy by the sheer enormity of the alleged crime.”

As the fabricated story tells it, Ukrainian forces after retaking Slavyansk from pro-Russian separatists in July 2014, supposedly engaged in a systemic process of vicious retribution, including the public execution of a 3-year-old boy in front of his mother.

“It was a perfect piece of atrocity porn… the “crucified boy” was but one of many lies, half-truths, deceptions, and distractions pumped into Russians’ living rooms and onto their mobile phones, 24/7, by an entire industry of national TV networks, newspapers, pundits, and trolls beginning in early 2014,” wrote Kovalev in his FP article.

It was on July 12, 2014, that the Kremlin’s official Channel One TV broadcasters aired an interview with a woman called Galina Pyshniak, who claimed to be a refugee from Slavyansk.

She described how the town watched as the boy was nailed to a wooden board and crucified while his mother was tied to a tank and dragged around the square until she was dead. Despite no evidence to support Pyshniak claim of an alleged crime, and indeed contradictory eyewitness accounts suggesting that nothing off the sort ever took place, the story did the rounds.

As one of many correspondents who visited the region and Slavyansk itself at that time, I well remember the impact it had in deepening mistrust on both sides.

Curiously though today by contrast with 2014, Kovalev points out that there is nothing currently in the Russian media, that remotely resembles the fabrication of the “crucified boy” canard. Instead, he says, the country is subjected to what he describes as “just the usual barrage of familiar anti-Western tropes and propaganda.”

While warning that things might yet still change, Kovalev like other Russia watchers believes this indicates that the Kremlin isn’t preparing Russians for a rerun of the 2014 scenario. This though has not stopped Moscow from hammering home the message that the US and UK is fomenting war between Russia and Ukraine.

According to The Levada Centre, one of the few independent pollsters in Russia, 50 % of Russians see the US and NATO as responsible for rising tensions, while fewer than 5% blame the Kremlin. By the same token Levada found that there is currently little malign intent towards Ukraine among Russians.

While 42 % of Russians polled held a negative view of Ukraine, 45 % saw their neighbour positively, a marked contrast to 2015 when 24 % were positive and 63 % negative.

All of which poses certain messaging challenges for the Kremlin and accounts perhaps in part for an uptick on social media messaging over the last few months as Moscow has increased pressure on the government in Kyiv and its Western allies.

“Where they really are moving the needle is on undermining support for US. internationalism,” says Bret Schafer head of the information manipulation team at the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy, in reference to the Kremlin’s disinformation tactics.

“Russia state media messaging is more effective at chipping away at the West’s geopolitical goals than it is in dividing the West because we do that well enough on our own,” Schafer was cited by online magazine Politico as saying last week. Both overseas and at home in Russia, this quite often involves the Kremlin deploying what analysts describe as transparent lies, or vranyo as it’s known in Russian.

While some of this appears on social media globally much of the propaganda is aimed at a domestic audience in Russia and at pro-Moscow Ukrainians.

In one example, an arm of the Moscow-controlled broadcaster RT circulated a clip of Russian President Vladimir Putin saying that events in eastern Ukraine “resemble genocide.”

Most of these messages have a familiar ring to them, with claims for example that Russia’s planned military operations were intended to protect ethnic Russians or pre-empt action by NATO.

What’s been called “weaponising history” too has taken on a fresh urgency with social media messaging flagging up old arguments about western Ukrainians being aligned with Nazism.

“The pro-Kremlin disinformation machine uses a well-known tactic of throwing mud against a wall to see what sticks,” Politico cited one Western official as saying on condition of anonymity as they were not authorised to speak publicly about their work tracking Russian online tactics.

“There are a lot of contradictions, but consistency has never been a strong suit of the Kremlin’s disinformation machine. It’s rather about muddying the waters,” the source added.

But part of the problem for Putin and Russian state sponsored news outlets in shaping the debate at home over Ukraine is the prevailing political attitude of many ordinary Russians say media experts.

Either just fed up with their autocratic rulers or muzzled after more intensive crackdowns on political dissent many Russians, especially the young, have simply opted out of following ‘official’ news.

Faced with this, even the Kremlin’s elaborate and sophisticated disinformation and propaganda machinery struggles when citizens simply turn a deaf ear on messaging over the current Ukraine crisis.

And speaking of messaging, it’s not just in Russia that the government is keen to get its line across on Ukraine. For weeks now the UK government has been doing some messaging of its own, the veracity of which has often been questionable or proved less than helpful on the diplomatic front.

It was Britain after all that recently divulged intelligence findings that is says show Russia plotting to install a pro-Russian government in Ukraine. Then there was Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s threat that Russia would face a “new Chechnya,” a comparison that on so many levels politically and militarily does not stand up to serious scrutiny.

Truth has been a casualty here too in the UK in other ways over the ongoing tensions with Russia. This not least given that while the UK government talks tough about sanctions against Moscow over Ukraine, it has for years in happily accommodated Kremlin linked- ‘dirty money’ and Russian oligarchs in what has given rise to the Soviet era inspired moniker “Londongrad.”

Such contradiction about Britain’s contradictory positioning over Russia have not gone unnoticed by its US allies. Just last week, analysis by the influential Democratic- aligned think-tank the Center for American Progress (CAP), outlined the obstacles faced in making sanctions against Moscow bite and singled out Britain as one of them.

“Uprooting Kremlin-linked oligarchs will be a challenge given the close ties between Russian money and the United Kingdom’s ruling Conservative Party, the press and its real estate and financial industry,” concluded, Max Bergmann author of the CAP report.

On many levels then the ongoing disinformation campaigns and war of words over Ukraine has thrown into sharp focus the duplicitous way governments, Russian, American, and British among them, go about handling such international crises.

For its part, the US State Department recently went as far as publishing what it called a “cheat sheet” in its efforts to highlight the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign and strategies.

But as last week’s confrontation between State Department spokesperson Ned Price and Associated Press diplomatic correspondent Matt Lee, revealed during that Washington briefing, all sides here are guilty of either being economical with the truth, or peddling downright lies.

Commenting on Twitter about the spat between Price and Lee, the UK Channel 4 News International Editor, Lindsey Hilsum, noted that Lee’s persistent questioning of the State Department official was, “Journalism asking for evidence not taking dictation.”

“And no that doesn’t mean giving credence to Russian propaganda… it means trying to test the veracity of US, NATO or UK intelligence… we remember Iraq and the 45 minutes,” added Hilsum, a reference to the UK government dossier claim back in 2002, that the Iraqi military were able to deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order to do so. That, as we all now know, was totally untrue.

If truth is indeed the first casualty of war, then the toll taken over the Ukraine crisis from disinformation, propaganda, claim and counter claim, half-lie, half-truth formulation has already been immense.

Deep mistrust is the real enemy and danger here. A mistrust the cumulative effect of which could so easily tip this crisis from the realm of words into full blown warfare and the terrible bloodshed that comes with it.

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